Directed by Faythe Levine and Sam Macon, Sign Painters explores the tradition behind painting and hand-lettering banners, storefronts and billboards. Overrun by technology, there was a familiar decline on this skilled trade. In recent years, however, there has been a renaissance in the trade and directors Levine and Macon were there to document it all in 2010. Now a book and a movie, Sign Painters is the first anecdotal history on sign painting and it features over a dozen stories from all over the country - including emerging and established artists of the trade.
Presented by Get This Gallery and Burnaway, Sign Painters will screen in Atlanta on June 11 at the Plaza Theatre. Here, Levine talks about the art of signs, traveling around the country, and loving what you do.
What sparked your interest to start learning about sign painters?
I have always been creative and had my hands busy with art. From an early age, letters and their presence within my work has been a theme. I was living in Minneapolis in the late '90s and the neighborhood we hung out in was dominated by this one sign painter's hand. Their influence on us was more under our skin than I think any of us realized. My friends sought out said sign painter and that was the first time in my life that I even knew there was someone with that job title. Sign Painter Phil Vandervaart, featured in the movie and book, let my friends hang out in his shop, and from there that group of people went on to all run full-time shops of their own around the country and Sweden. The thing that made an impact on me was the time devoted to process and technique. It wasn't for me, and I went on to do other things always returning to my interest in letters and traditional hand-paint. As my personal art practice grew into research and documentaries, I was surprised that there wan't more information for the public to learn about sign painting and its history and tradition. So after wrapping up my first film, Handmade Nation, I approached Sam Macon about working on the project together. We had collaborated a bunch in the past on other projects and knew we wanted to work on a feature together. The rest is history.
First of all, I want to be clear that not all sign painters would consider sign painting art. Some are dedicated tradespeople that do not consider themselves creative or artists. However, there are many who have art careers and creative backgrounds. That's the thing, there isn't one type of person that makes up a sign painter, so answering specific questions can be tricky. However, the importance of the roll of sign painting within art is vast. The impact reaches many boundaries of the art and graphic design world. Again, I will return to the amazing dedication of process and practice, getting a younger generation to realize that you don't just "become something over night" is a large part of the educational element of this film. Educating the public about why hiring a skilled sign person who knows design and layout like the back of their own hand is it's own beast. But we feel like so far we have done a good job walking the line between making a film that the sign industry has embraced and has also become an educational film for the general public.
Tell me about working on the book simultaneously with the film.
The content from the book was gleaned entirely from transcribed interviews from the film, aside from Ed Ruscha's introduction. If anything, the print deadline from our publisher forced us to wrap up shooting or we may of gone on forever. There was just too many amazing people to interview.
What's your favorite thing you've learned in your travels, while interviewing sign painters and enthusiasts?
I think I can speak for both Sam and I that the most amazing thing we have learned from this experience is what it means to love what you do. The devotion that the folks who have been involved with the industry have to their trade is unlike anything I have ever come across. The addiction to painting, formations and perfection. We met some of the most amazing people during the course of this project, it's been incredible.
What are some techniques/styles that you've recently seen popping up in sign painting that have caught your eye?
I think that just seeing sign painting, as a whole, have this huge surge of interest in the past few years as an entity would be the main thing. When we started the production, if you did an Internet search for sign painting, there were maybe a handful of hits to follow. Now, there is an overwhelming amount of information, content and resources. The community is thriving with a new generation that is excited to meet and learn from those who have already put in their time. What I see is something amazing and cross-generational happening that I don't think occurs in many industries and it's happening outside of any structured system. People are just finding each other and painting. But again, I will stress - one does not become a sign painter overnight!
What do you hope viewers get from the film?
We hope that the sign painters feel appreciated and that the general public knows that there's a whole industry of folks out there that is ready to work, ready to letter whatever your heart desires. Ideally, when the viewer walks away, no matter their background, they feel inspired.
Sign Painters. Free and open to the public. 7 p.m. Mon., June 11. Plaza Theater, 1049 Ponce de Leon. For more information, visit the event page.
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